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mmm, weeds!

"Wildman" Steve Brill looks at Central Park and sees a salad bar. An anchor package from the funding-challenged Environment Show.
(originally aired July 12, 2002)
6:34 | listen: RealAudio · mp3

It’s no secret you can find wild things in New York City. One trip through the East Village will yield sightings of things you never thought advisable or even possible. But what about wild things of natural origins? It turns out there’s plenty of that, too. In fact… Central Park is full of wild edible plants. You just have to know where to look… and that’s where Wildman Steve Brill comes in.

Wildman is a forager… he gathers food from pretty much wherever it grows… parks, yards, the side of the road. He’s been doing this for about twenty years… and for most of that time he’s also been showing other people how to do it. Twenty such newbie foragers recently followed him into Central Park in search of hidden culinary gems. They didn’t have to go far… just a few steps from the entrance at 72nd street and Central Park West… the first find of the day.

{Wildman nat- epazote} :45
“…OK, how many of you like to cook…”

But if you can run to Macy’s bargain basement for epazote or whatever… isn’t trudging through Central Park looking for it a little… weird? Steve Brill says not at all… in fact… it’s a perfectly natural thing for humans to do.

{Wildman- modern savannah} :
“people like areas that have some grassy sections, some trees, some water… this is the savannah where we evolved… we recreate our savannah habitat in our backyards and parks… and that’s where the plants that we survived on before agriculture grew and still grow”

Much of this wild food isn’t like the stuff you get in supermarkets. For one thing… a lot of it does look like a weed. And the taste is sharper, stronger… more pungent. Wood sorrel glows with lemony zing… poor man’s pepper bites back… and the mulberries melt with a honey-like after-taste. Wildman says agricultural food doesn’t taste like that for a reason.

{Wildman- stronger flavors} :
“stuff that comes from the farm has been bred to be heavier so people make more of a profit… so it’s full of water… the wild plants are growing to survive… so they concentrate the flavors and the nutrients… way more than the stuff you get from farms”

But the earthy and sometimes bitter tones of wild food do contrast greatly with the modern sugar-laden diet… and it may take some time for people to get accustomed to. The Bronx’s Rosalyn Horn says that’s fine.

{Horn- is the way it is}
“I think it is what is… and nature intended it to be that way so that’s why it is that way… it doesn’t bother me”

{Wildman nat- garlic mustard}
“it’s a member of the mustard family that protects itself from insects by smelling like garlic… a very effective defense unless it’s attacked by Italian insects and it goes extinct”

Even though he’s pre-agricultural… there’s still a lot of corn in Steve Brill.

{Wildman- stooges}
“growing up my Mom told me if I didn’t stop watching the Three Stooges I’d end up acting like them… I guess I should have listened to her”

{Wildman nat- lost}
“do we have everyone… if they get lost… at least they’ll know what to eat”

The groan inducing jokes and zany behavior are all part of the Wildman personae… the idea for which Brill says came to him during meditation about 20 years ago. The shtick has earned him bunches of media coverage… especially in 1986 when the foraging life got him arrested by New York City park police. The arrest put him on the front pages of newspapers and into the rundowns of the national evening news.

Brill has now settled in to writing books and giving tours… waking people up to their environment and preaching the gospel of wild food. He’s finding a pretty receptive audience. Tom Sanchez is part of a suburban high school environment club that was a long for this recent tour.

{Sanchez- it’s all good}
“I like the lemon stuff… the what’s it called… yeah, the wood sorrel and I’m planning on making guacamole with the other green stuff… yeah, the epazota-mate-tate… and everything else has been excellent… the mulberries too”

So maybe the younger the audience isn’t exactly locked in… but Sanchez’s teacher Jennifer Paradis says the message is getting through.

{Paradis- education aware}
“I think they’re paying attention and having a good time and they’re going to take home samples and information and education makes you more aware… and if it doesn’t impact your life now… maybe someday they come back to this and use it later”

Here in the present… it’s a way of life for Wildman Steve Brill. He says it’s a great way to stay in touch with the natural world’s rhythm… and it can be a tasty way to eat. Brill makes his case in a new wild foods cookbook. It’s a hefty volume… full of recipes for everything from vegan sassafras ice cream to sautéed Japanese knotweed. And if you’re concerned about the environment… Wildman says there’s a whole sustainable culinary world we’ve been ignoring.

{Wildman- it is sustainable} :
“these are the same weeds that people are destroying in their back yards and gardens… these are the same weeds mowers are taking down by the millions… and these same thing we’ve been picking today… we’ve been picking in the same place for twenty years and they’re still here”

The masses may need a little more convincing. Ron Rothman and Sara Thibeault were both grooving on the Wildman’s tour… but… not that much.

{Rothman and Thibeau- not as a lifestyle}
“I think it’s interesting… but I can’t see myself doing this every day to sustain myself… (him) not as a lifestyle (her) yeah (both laugh)”

So that just means more burdock root and Kentucky coffee tree for the foragers. If anything… Steve Brill’s tours are a reminder that even in the most urban of settings… wild things don’t necessarily come with spiked pink hair.

For more information about Wildman’s cook book and his tours… stop by Wildman Steve Brill dot com.



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